I am writing this review from the perspective of experienced cruisers (20+ cruises and more than 250 days at sea) who usually go on other, slightly more upscale cruise lines (primarily Princess, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean). So the disclaimer is that we typically would not cruise on Carnival. We chose the Carnival Valor for an extended family vacation get together with three generations of family (ages 80-85, 47-53 and 19-28). We decided to go with Carnival Valor for three primary reasons: 1) we felt that Carnival would be a better choice for the 19-28 age range young adults (which was half of our group); 2) price (the entry level oceanview cabins were priced at a level that was more affordable to the group); and 3) itinerary (this cruise went to two stops where most of us have not been before--La Romana and Grand Turk--as well as two standard and crowded cruise stops--Nassau and San Juan).
My wife and I are both in our early 50s and have cruised on a number of cruise lines (Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Costa, Holland America and Cunard). We had said in the past that we didn't have a favorite cruise line, that they all have different things that we like. However, in the past year our view has changed. We do prefer the higher end mass market cruise lines like Princess, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity. We also like Costa when they can manage to keep their ships afloat. Holland America is a bit too old for us and Cunard is a bit too stuffy. We've decided that this will be our last cruise on Carnival (and have made that decision for Norwegian as well) due to being too low end and entry level for our tastes.
I realize that my review may sound somewhat critical of Carnival (since this cruise was less than ideal in several aspects), but I want to be clear that we did enjoy spending time together as a family on this cruise. However, in retrospect, we should have chosen a different cruise line. We did a similar extended family cruise a couple years ago on Royal Caribbean and it was a markedly better experience for everyone. We have been on one Carnival cruise prior with our two daughters (out of San Juan for a Southern Caribbean itinerary) several years ago and it worked out surprisingly well, so we decided to give Carnival another try. However, this Carnival cruise was not at the same level or standard.
The food was not as good as other cruise lines, in some cases not even close. Dinner in the main dining room in particular was a real letdown compared to other cruise lines. Don't plan to order five courses (appetizer, soup, salad, entree and dessert). They group the appetizers, soups and salads into one part of the menu and most people only order one, possibly two, but not three. The food was surprisingly unoriginal and uninspiring and much more mainstream (including a "comfort menu" entree each evening). The service was extremely rushed, with dishes being served as soon as they arrived from the galley, whether you were ready for them or not. This often resulted in half of the table being served and the other half waiting, so we learned early to just eat when the food arrives, since you have no idea when the other food may show up. My wife actually had her plate taken out from under her as she was finishing her last bite. We were on late seating (8:15) and at 10:00 each evening, they would bring up the house lights and start playing loud music. It's not like they have another seating where they need to get ready? Also, the level of service seemed to be spread much thinner than other cruise lines. Our waitress had two assistant waiters assigned to her, so she was covering double the number of tables we have seen on other cruise lines. This contributed to the rushed atmosphere for dinner, which we have not seen on other cruise lines. We were never introduced to either our waitress or assistant waiters and I cannot remember any of their names. No relationship building with the wait staff, perhaps another casualty of automatic tipping. On the plus side for the food, there was a sushi bar available on deck 5 most evenings for those seeking out a light snack before dinner. We typically did room service for breakfast (continental only, no hot choices available) and the lido buffet for lunch. They were both fine, nothing outstanding, typical cruise ship fare. The fish and chips on deck 10 above the lido buffet was quite good and rarely had a crowd.
The entertainment was lacking, which was a big surprise for us. The prior Carnival cruise we had taken had more entertainment options. Since we were on late dining, we thought that the evening entertainment would be before dinner on most evenings, except perhaps the two ports where we got back later (La Romana and Grand Turk). Not so. Entertainment for late dining was always after dinner at 10:15 or 10:30, so if you select late dining, plan to stay up late. Additionally, they had shows like Battle of the Sexes and the Newlywed Game in the main show theater as the headline entertainment of the evening. These are typically secondary or late night entertainment on most cruise ships. You would think that with a cruise ship this size, they could afford to bring on headline acts each evening? There was also a dead spot for entertainment from about 4p to 7:30p, so if you were on late dining (8:15p), there wasn't much to do in terms of entertainment. On the plus side, the piano bar was a fun experience and had a large following. There were comedy shows available in Eagles Lounge on four nights of the cruise with a total of four different comedians (two alternating each night for two nights in a row), but the timing of the shows (two family friendly shows at 7:45 and 8:30, then adults only at 10, 11 and 12) meant that if you were on late dining and preferred the family friendly shows, you could only see the first 30 minutes of the first show. I guess the theory is that if you are in late dining, you prefer the later shows with the f-bombs. Not so for us, but I guess that's perhaps the case for the majority on this cruise. The production shows on the two "cruise elegant" nights were pretty standard production shows, 12 dancers (4 men, 8 women) and 2 singers (1 male, 1 female). The singers were quite good, the dancers were fine, no one in the main production company was over the top or outstanding. However, there were two break dancers that performed in the second production show that had a real wow factor and received a standing ovation after their portion of the performance. Very acrobatic, never thought I would say I really enjoyed break dancing, but it was the highlight of the production shows. Other acts included a magician (good magician, although he lacked the personality of most magicians/showmen) and juggler (very good). The main theater (Ivanhoe) has a flat floor on the lowest floor (deck 3), which made the sight lines from the back somewhat difficult. The balcony (decks 4 and 5) sometimes had blocked views due to pillars (10 of them in various locations throughout the theater) and/or the railing in front of the seats. It was generally fairly easy to get a seat for the late show, could come in 5-10 minutes before and find a seat. Not sure why, but immediately before the late show they host bingo in the theater on most evenings (exception being the production show nights), so on the night they had blackout bingo, the main show was delayed to finish the game of bingo. Just strange to be subjected to bingo each evening when you come early for the show.
Carnival spends a lot of time trying to sell stuff onboard. Whether it is the once-every-two-minutes drink requests, the photos at the gangway (in some cases, two or three different poses being setup--and taken--by passengers getting off at the port), to pics at dinner (again, often more than one pose at dinner), to serving shots after dinner (that was a new one for us, hadn't seen that before on any cruise line, including our last time on Carnival), to the incessant announcements by the Cruise Director hawking everything from bingo to shop sales onboard to spa to champagne art auctions. Yikes. It was a one week sellathon. Be prepared to be sold. I'm a CCL shareholder, but this was embarrassingly excessive.
Our aft balcony was extremely small. We've been on aft balconies on other ships and they tend to be somewhat larger than a standard balcony. This is one of the highest priced balcony categories, so you would think there would be more room, but there is not--apparently it ended up being more narrow to get six across the back of the ship. The hallway as you enter the cabin between the closets and the bathroom was extremely narrow. It was not wide enough for room service to carry the tray sideways, they had to carry it in the narrow direction. I'm not sure how a larger person would even get through that hallway. There is no seating area other than a side chair over by the refrigerator, not very usable. The closets are a decent size and held all of our hanging clothes (two closets) and folded clothes (one closet).
The balcony itself is deeper than a normal balcony, but due to the ship's design (the slanting aft), much of the balcony space (about one third) is below the railing and slanting outward. It's pretty much unusable unless you are laying on the lounger extending your feet into this lower space. Probably the biggest negative about the balconies is that Carnival allows smoking on the balconies. We had a chain smoker next door and the backdraft on the back of the ship made our balcony unusable for most of the cruise. Note to self: only book with cruise lines that do not allow smoking on balconies (like Princess and others).
The general layout of the ship makes it difficult to get from one end to the other on the third and fourth decks. The third deck is blocked in the middle by the galley and the fourth deck is blocked in the middle by one of the Lincoln dining room. So it forces you to either go down to the 2nd level or up to the 5th level to get from dining (on 3 or 4) to the theater (on 3, 4, or 5). And crossing the ship on 5 requires you to walk through the casino, where smoking is allowed. Not the best layout on these lower floors. As a side note, if you are into gambling (we aren't), the casino onboard is one of the largest we have seen on a cruise ship and the tables were busy most evenings. On the upper decks (lido deck 9 and above), the layout was very nice and included tiered stadium seating in the center pool area and an outdoor big screen for sports and special events (which worked out well for several college and NFL football games which took place while we were onboard). Smoking is permitted on the starboard side of the ship on the open decks and there were a lot of smokers onboard, so if you're sensitive to cigarette smoke, you simply made sure you stayed on the port side of the ship. The Serenity area on decks 12 and 14 (no kids, over 21 only) was quite nice, with padded loungers and seating in both the sun and the shade, although it was rather windy up there most days (since it is the top two decks of the ship).
We were surprised with the level of movement on the ship. We had not experienced this many bumps and rolls since our first cruise 20 years ago. The Valor was built in 2004, so I assume it has stabilizers, but they either were not being used (perhaps due to the high level of speed needed to reach each port) or they were simply not effective. There weren't any storms or swells, so it's unclear why there was so much movement on the ship. With most other ships, you often cannot tell if you are moving. Not that case with this ship, at least for this itinerary. So caution if you are prone to seasickness. There were several in our party of 16 that were seasick during the cruise.
The ports of call ended up being good choices for our group and we had a mix of different activities, from snorkeling to scuba diving to beach days to city tours. So we were happy with what we saw in our days at port on this itinerary. A couple of the ports (La Romana and Grand Turk) were more difficult to research in advance for independent tours, but we eventually came up with tours that worked for our group.
The people on the ship were a different demographic from other cruise lines (with the possible exception of Norwegian, the other entry level cruise line). This was an entry level cruise targeting a young and casual demographic. There were two "formal" nights, although Carnival called it "cruise elegant" nights and for most people, it was like any other night in the dining room. Some people do dress up that evening (dress slacks, dress shirts, some ties, some jackets and about 3 or 4 actual tuxes) and the women dress up more than the men. This isn't really a critique, it's just the style of cruising. I brought a tux with me (since we will be going on a later cruise on Princess after this cruise), but didn't feel comfortable wearing it.
I know that Carnival has a reputation for "The Fun Ships" which can often translate into overdrinking and drunkenness. While there was certainly plenty of drinking onboard, we didn't see anyone drunk (plenty of tipsy, but no stumble drunks). They were probably there, but we didn't see them (although some of the younger people in our group were hassled by a drunk guy at lunch one day, so it's out there, just wasn't broadly noticeable). Perhaps that's more common on Carnival's shorter (3-day and 4-day) itineraries.
Carnival Valor may work for you if you are new to cruising, like being casual and don't have any expectations set at a higher level by other cruise lines (like Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, etc.). So it can work for you if you are new to cruising (first or second cruise) or have been cruising prior only with Carnival and Norwegian. Or if you simply set your expectations at that level. However, if you are used to cruising with the higher level lines, you may be disappointed with what Carnival has to offer. We saw the Ruby Princess in port the same day we were in Grand Turk and had cruise line envy toward her, wishing we had booked with her instead.
Carnival Valor was a good cruise for our extended family, but if we had to do it over again, we would have paid a few more dollars to go more upscale.